AFA NEWS: Air Force Not Optimized for China Threat, Secretary Says

By Sean Carberry

Air Force photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Today’s Department of the Air Force is a product of the conflicts, defense budgets and strategic landscape of the last 30 years, and the department is embarking on a wide-ranging effort to “re-optimize” the way it is organized and operates to address the pacing threat from China, the Air Force secretary said.

“It's a recognition, I think, by all of us — all of the senior leadership in the department — that we need to make some changes to be more competitive,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference, Sept. 11. “And they're going to cut across pretty much everything we do,” he said.

“The impetus for this was accumulative over the first two years I've been here, and it started with the recognition that we didn't have institutions in place that could do some of the activities we started under” the seven operational imperatives he announced for the force earlier this year. Those imperatives are space order of battle, operationally focused advanced battle management systems, moving target engagement, tactical air dominance, resilient basing, global strike and readiness to deploy and fight.

Kendall said that as he got to know the Air Force better, “I determined that we were not as deployable as I think we should be to support our operations plans. We can do it of course, but it would require disruption, and we're not practicing that at the levels that I think we should be.

“We're not evaluating units the way we once did during the Cold War for their readiness to deploy as a warfighting entity,” he added.

“So, we need to create organizations to do work we should have been able to do with existing organizations,” he said. “I don't necessarily think we need to go back and emulate Cold War structures, but they can be instructive about what we need.”

The Department of the Air Force will spend the next four months conducting a review “looking at all aspects of how we organize, train and equip within the department to support the combatant commanders in the Joint Force,” he said.

The review will involve five teams formed from Air Force headquarters, Kendall’s office, Air Force and Space Force staff and from the field as well, he said.

After the review period, the Department of the Air Force will move forward implementing reforms, he said.

“So, the end state will be an organization that's more aligned with dealing with the types of threats that are most of concern,” he said.

The threats largely center on the Indo-Pacific and the need to conduct agile combat employment — operating in small, dispersed units that make it more difficult for adversaries to target and reduce losses if a base or unit is attacked, he said.

A critical component will be ensuring that units train together and understand they will enter the fight together, which is different from the way the service “crowdsourced” deployments in the Middle East, he noted.

“People need to know that they're in an organization, and that they have the job of going and entering into the fight as a unit,” he said.

“And then we need to train them that way,” he continued. “We need to evaluate their ability to do that function. We also need to look in the equipping side at restoring some of the long-term competitive types of development focused organizations that we had during the Cold War.”

One way the service will achieve that is through a pilot program of three air task forces — two for CENTCOM and one for the INDOPACOM — that will help the service evaluate how to deploy better integrated and effective units, he said.

“The end state will be a department that is better aligned with being responsive to the pacing challenge,” he said. “And again, as we always do, I think we'll learn from our experience, and we'll iterate. But the intent here is to do kind of a pulse of major changes that will put us in a much better position than we're currently in.”

Kendall discussed other topics during the conversation with reporters, including the first flight of the B-21, which is still scheduled for this year, he said.

“We're going through a number of things to get ready for first flight, they all have to happen,” he said. “And there's always risk in development programs, something can surprise you. So, absent any unexpected surprises, but surprises do happen in acquisition programs.”


Topics: Air Power

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